knowledge/intelligence

A recent Soc Images post on cultural appropriation highlighted issues of control over the production and representation of images of Indigenous peoples. On a related note, an image I captured during a recent visit to the Canadian Museum of Civilization (or as one of my professors has called it, the “Canadian Museum of Colonization”) highlights similar issues regarding the representation of Indigenous knowledges. This poster was displayed in the “First Peoples’ Hall” of the museum in a section dedicated to “Ways of Knowing”:

Two points are particularly striking. Firstly, the poster portrays the “preservation” of Indigenous knowledges as a project of colonizers and non-Indigenous anthropologists. Rather than attributing control over the production and representation of Indigenous knowledges to Indigenous peoples themselves, the poster depicts colonial “explorers” and anthropologists as the primary agents in these endeavors. Indigenous peoples themselves are merely portrayed as informants, leaving interpretation and presentation to colonizers and anthropologists. In recent years, numerous Indigenous scholars have written about the oppressive nature of this type of approach to Indigenous peoples and knowledges, pointing out how academic disciplines such as anthropology have been essential tools in the study and subjugation of Indigenous peoples as “primitive Others.”

Secondly, the poster presents Indigenous knowledges as static and unchanging, ignoring their dynamic nature and the ongoing experiences of Canada’s Indigenous communities. Canadian Indigenous scholar Andrea Smith* has argued that in settler societies such as Canada, false notions of the disappearance or threat of extinction of Indigenous peoples and their knowledges are at the foundation of cultural imaginations and serve as justifications for the appropriation of Indigenous lands and cultures. In this case, the threat of extinction is implied in the need for Indigenous knowledges to be “preserved in writing.”

This poster provides an entry point for questioning power relations inherent in the production and presentation of knowledge at the Canadian Museum of Civilization and similar institutions. This example demonstrates how the museum portrays a particular view of Canada and its relationship with Indigenous communities, one which ignores the historical and continuing reality of colonialism and its implications.

* Smith, A. (2006). Heteropatriarchy and the three pillars of white supremacy: Rethinking women of color organizing. In A. Smith (Ed.), Color of Violence: The Incite! Anthology (66-73). Cambridge, MA: South End Press.

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Hayley Price has a background in sociology, international development studies, and education. She recently completed her Masters degree in Sociology and Equity Studies in Education at the University of Toronto with a thesis on Indigenous knowledges in development studies.

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Adrienne at Native Appropriations reports that this year Harvard University fraternity Sigma Chi threw a Columbus Day “bros and hos” party titled “Conquistabros and Navajos.” Get it?

Perhaps it’s too much to expect student in the Ivy League to be sensitive, but Harvard students are supposed to be smart, right?  Not so much.  Adrienne points out their bizarre illogic: how exactly does it make sense to have a party that mingles Navajos (from the American Southwest) with pilgrims (who lived in the American Northeast) and Conquistadors (who arrived after, not with Columbus) and cowboys (who, as we know them, would come hundreds of years later)?

And while we’re at it, why not expect them to be sensitive.  Adrienne reminds us, again, patiently…

1. Glorifying and making light of the atrocities committed by the “explorers” of the Americas is just as bad as glorifying the Nazis and the Holocaust, and not something to be taken lightly.

2. The theme is using a generic stereotype of an Indigenous person (in this case “Navajo”) to represent thousands of tribes and communities throughout the Americas, each with their own unique culture and history. The Indigenous groups who encountered the conquistadors are not remotely the same as Navajos in the southwest, and by lumping them together, the party contributes to continued stereotyping of Native peoples as one monolithic group — consisting of hollywood stereotypes of war paint, feathers, and buckskin.

3. Encouraging party goers to “dress up” as American Indians and Indigenous Peoples puts Native people in the category of a fantasy character — something that no longer exists, or never did. Columbus, Conquistadors, and Pilgrims are all situated in the past, but Native peoples are still here, are still alive, and still Native (and yes, cowboys are still alive, but they are not systematically oppressed and facing continued colonialism). It is also condoning dressing up in racial drag, and I would bet Sigma Chi might get in a little trouble if they hosted a blackface party.

But no one would do that, would they?

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Claude Fischer, author of Made in America (the blog and the book), recently posted about the trend in IQ test scores among Americans.  He explains:

In general, contemporary Americans – and westerners in general – score higher  than did people in the early- and mid-twentieth century… Indeed, there have been “massive gains” in scores over the twentieth century. This increase has been called the “Flynn Effect” after the scholar who first noted it.

Fischer argues that the rise in intelligence test scores reflects training in abstract cognitive tasks (both in school and out)  and improved health and nutrition:

Over the years, more Americans have become more extensively “trained” – knowingly or not – in the cognitive skills these tests measure, such as reading and decoding visual abstractions. Consider how modern children learn to “get” the alternating perspectives and visual meanings in television, video games, commercial logos, traffic signals, and the like…  And modern children encounter far more writing, from schoolbooks to billboards to Facebook entries, than their ancestors did…

Another sort of explanation stresses improved health and nutrition, particularly in the womb and early in life. Not just sufficient calories, but sufficient nutrients like iodine and Vitamin C, are critical to growing minds (see, e.g., here.) Similarly, exposure to toxins, notably to lead in old paint and gasoline, reduces children’s cognitive skills. Thus, improved nutrition and health over the 20th century could explain some or all of the increase.

The rise in intelligence scores and the influence of our environments, suggests an interactive relationship between biology and society.  We often think that intelligence is somehow “innate,” as if we are born with a certain IQ that is more or less inflexible.  These scores suggest, however, that our potential for abstract thought, though it may be located in the biological matter of the brain, is actually quite malleable.

This, of course, is helpful for understanding differences in cognitive ability by socioeconomic class at one point in time, as well as historical changes.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

History isn’t fact, but a narrative.  Nations narrate their own histories, telling the stories about themselves that they prefer.  Holidays are one way in which these stories are told and re-told.

At www.america.gov, the U.S. government describes Columbus Day as a”commemoration” of Columbus’ “landing in the New World” (they astutely avoid the term “discovery”) and initiating a “lasting encounter” between the mis-named “Indians” and Europeans (no mention of genocide or the stealing of land).

Contesting this particular version of history, an organization calling itself Reconsider Columbus Day is asking Americans to adopt an alternative national narrative, one that both acknowledges and emphasizes the oppressive and unjust outcomes of the ongoing “lasting encounter” between American “Indians” and Europeans-now-Americans.

The narrative and counter-narrative is an interesting example of how nation-founding memories are not set, but always potentially changing as the national ethos and distribution of power shifts underneath them.

For more on national memories, see our post comparing the German approach to the Holocaust and the America approach to slavery.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Last month the cast of Jersey Shore rang the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE). The public responded negatively.  Says one snarky observer on the NYSE’s Facebook page:

The kids of the Jersey Shore rang the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange this week.  In a related story, civilization is down 500 points.

The trouble, it seems, comes from the weirdness of bringing together trivial-and-fake-“reality”-stars with the very-important-and-really-real-U.S.-financial-market.

Economic sociologist Brooke Harrington, however, thinks the two are less incongruent than they seem.  She writes:

I’d like to suggest that what seems so wrong with that picture of Snooki and company ringing the opening bell actually makes a lot of sense sociologically. If this meeting of worlds—entertainment and the stock market—seems strange, it may be because we’re so used to regarding the markets as “real,” rather than as a performance (or even as entertainment in their own right).

Markets, she explains, aren’t “more ‘real’ than ‘reality TV.'”  Instead, both the characters on Jersey Shore and markets are playing themselves.   The reality show stars respond to expectations of “Guido” and “Guidette” personalities.  Likewise, the market responds to  economists whose predictions often create the very reality that they anticipate.

Harrington brings in a fancy concept:

Both are engaged in producing what French sociologist and cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard calls “the simulacrum:” a copy without an original, a pretense that replaces and ultimately negates “reality” so successfully that we no longer care about what is real.

She finishes:

Theorized through this lens, the image of the Jersey Shore cast ringing the opening bell at the NYSE persists in memory not because it is represents a collision of worlds, but because it brings together two genres of performance whose entertainment value depends on their purported “reality.”

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.


French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu is famous for helping us understand how economic elites reproduce their own wealth across generations.  It takes money to make money, and that is certainly true.  But as Bourdieu noticed, it wasn’t just money.  Upper-class people had entire ways of living that excluded people without money and people who were newly rich.  They knew the right people (and knew them in common), the right things (e.g., how to talk about yachts), and the right way to act (e.g., which fork to use first).  Other people’s ignorance of these things exposes them to the elite as “not our kind of people.” Even when the elite aren’t biased towards their own on purpose, they’re still more likely to hire the guy who can chat about the most lauded vintage that year, and their children are more likely to marry the children of others who summered alongside them, and so on.  All of these little things — mannerisms, interests, languages, sartorial choices — send messages that distinguish the elite from the non-elite, preserving the group as distinctly advantaged.

In other words, Countess Luann is right:

Thanks to RGR for linking to this video in our recent birthday post for Pierre!  More Bourdieu-ian posts: taste, dumb vs. smart books, and the Evangelican habitus.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

This 40-second commercial for HSBC bank, sent in by Michelle F., is an excellent example of the way that non-white and non-Western people are often portrayed as more deeply cultural, connected to the past, and closer to nature than their white, Western counterparts.  Sometimes this is done in order to demonize a culture as “barbaric,” other times it is used to infantilize them as “primitive.” In this case, it romanticizes.

Running on both English and Chinese language channels, the commercial contrasts the wise Chinese man with the young, white man.  The music, the boats, their clothing and hats, and their fishing methods all suggest that the Chinese are more connected to their own long-standing  (ancient?) cultural traditions, ones that offered them an intimate and cooperative relationship to nature. Simultaneously, it erases Chinese modernity, fixing China somewhere back in time.

Other posts on the modernity/traditional binary:

Caveman Courtship

The White Woman’s Burden
De-Racializing the Modernity/Tradition Binary

Africans as Props for White Femininity
Women’s Bodies and the Modernity/Tradition Binary

Which Images Represent India?
The Unseen Middle East

The Primitive and the Modern in Kanye’s Love Lockdown
Our review of Avatar, the Movie
Porn Producer with a Heart of Gold

What Counts as Indian Art?
Whites can Reconquer the America’s with Kahlua

Primitive Child Offers Cures for Modern Ills

Or browse our tag on the false modern/primitive binary.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities ran the CBO data on income and published a report showing the huge increase in inequality since 1979, especially in recent years (the data go up to 2007 – full report here).  It’s the people at the top – the default swappers and hedge funders – who’ve been making out like bandits, while the rest of us limped slowly along.

The graph shows percent changes. How much is that in American money?

We all knew this. But I’m still surprised that supposedly intelligent people can still attribute it all to individual factors. Yes, individual differences in ability account for individual differences.  But they don’t make for huge changes in the overall distribution.

But here we have Glenn Reynolds, Instapundit, one of the most widely read bloggers in the known universe (especially the conservative universe), reprinting the comment of a reader at a tax blog that posted the data.

A reason for the “wealth or income gap”: Smart people keep on doing things that are smart and make them money while stupid people keep on doing things that are stupid and keep them from achieving.

People who get an education, stay off of drugs, apply themselves, and save and wisely invest their earnings do a lot better than people who drop out of school, become substance abusers, and buy fancy cars and houses that they can’t afford, only to lose them.

We don’t have an income gap. We have a stupid gap.

Glenn calls it “the comment of the day.”

In 1993, the average household in the top 1% was making 36 times the income of a household in the lowest fifth. In the next 14 years, those top guys worked really hard while the poor apparently sold their diplomas to buy crack and Escalades, so by 2007 the gap had doubled. The richest now made 72 times the income of the poor.

The funny thing is that for a few years (1984- 1983 1993) the rich-poor gap was decreasing. It must have been all the cocaine those bond traders were doing.

The commenter is right – there may be a stupid gap. But it’s the gap that Durkheim suggested long ago. Some people look at “social facts” – large differences between one time or place and another – and try to explain them in terms of individual facts. Other people seek an explanation in social facts – facts about the society, facts which individuals have little power to change.

(HT: Mark Kleiman)